Ever since I stopped playing baseball competitively, I’ve feared that I’d be losing some of the more subtle nuances of the game. As I’ve written before, I’m a fairly tiny man who can probably fit in the cabinet below your sink. As such, I was what you’d call a “small ball” player – a guy who you should never count on for an extra-base hit but knew how to put the ball in play or draw a walk. I wasn’t very talented by any stretch of the imagination but I took pride in the fact that once I was on the field, I knew what to do.

book.jpgHaving been away from the game (aside from pick-up games in Prospect Park in Brooklyn) for five years now, my views have been altered. My appreciation for “small-ball” players have greatly diminished once I learned the importance of slugging percentages. Obviously, I know it’s not the be-all-end-all and the stat still takes a backseat to OBP as far as value is concerned, but time and again, I’ve convinced myself that you can’t be that valuable to your team if you can’t at least belt 25-30HRs a year. I began to view things like the stolen base as high-risk, low-reward propositions.

Well, I was wrong.

As is often the case, it’s numbers that make me feel stupid. This time, Tom Tango, aka Tango Tiger, gives a quick cheat sheet to explain how to calculate the break-even point for stolen bases, as in, what your success rate has to be before your thieving attempts are actually worthwhile:

1. take runs per game and divide by 2 (so, a 5.0 RPG gives you 2.5.  That’s close to the breakeven of SB, 2.5, to CS, 1).

2. Figure the percentage (2.5/3.5 = 71.4%)

3. Subtract 3%

4. Breakeven is: 68.4%

In The Book, I said the breakeven point for 1999-2002 (5.0 RPG) was 68.7%.

So, a 4.0 RPG environment would give you: 2.0, which is .667, which becomes .637.  This is why it really pays to play small ball against a great pitcher.

Firstly, 68.4 is a lower percentage than I previously thought for some reason. Looking at the 2005-2007 seasons, there were 6856 stolen bases on 9360 attempts throughout baseball. That’s a 73.2% success rate.  So right off the bat, there was a lesson to be learned – trying to steal a base is a good thing (news flash, I know) in the current baseball environment. Generally speaking, today’s baserunners are good. I really forgot that.

But the bigger thing to be gained is that last sentence. In a low run-scoring environment (i.e. pitcher’s duel), the value of each out decreases. Put more simply, if you’re facing Jake Peavy, chances are pretty good that the guy at the plate is going to make an out anyway so why the hell not try and steal a bag? Conversely, in a high run-scoring environment, say, if you’re facing Jeff Weaver, you should pretty much anchor yourself to the bag. It’s hard enough for a guy like Weaver to get outs. Why should you help him by risking yourself on the bases? Makes sense, right? It’s not that stolen bases appreciate/depreciate depending upon the nature of the game. It’s that caught stealing does because the value of outs fluctuate. I’m not sure why this was a such revelatory thing for me to learn, but it really was like a light went off in my head.

There is some value in sacrifice bunts!  Hit and runs? Knock yourself out! Bunting for hits? Absolutely!

Based upon the general perception that statisticians are hell-bent on disproving old baseball axioms, it’s kind of ironic isn’t it?

5 Responses to “Numbers Make Me Feel Stupid”

  1. Nice post.

    I don’t think it is true that statheads want to disprove baseball axioms. I think statheads want to know if the axioms are true or not.

    I’m not going to believe something because Frankie Frisch said so. I’d rather believe it because it’s true.

    And I would also argue that the notion that you steal when the odds are in your favor, instead of just sending virtually everybody in the hopes of “mixing up the defense”, is a stathead notion. Perhaps over time, the value of the well placed steal (down by 1, 7th inning, pitcher with poor move to first, reasonably quick runner, selective, high average hitter at bat) has improved the percentage due to managers using more discretion.

    After all, one of the most statheady teams, my Red Sox, had the entire 2004 season hinge on a steal of second base. As the Baseball Prospectus book on that season said, you don’t need to steal bases, as a rule…until you do.

  2. Prospect Park? Do you mean The Parade Grounds in the southwest corner of the park? Playing on those rocky infields in the mid-80s was brutal! Did the city ever do anything to make those fields quasi-presentable?

  3. Paul Moro says:

    Michael, I didn’t want to make it seem like I was saying that guys like Tango was purposely disproving axioms or anything. They have far too much respect for the game to do that. But among those who think that statheads are ruining the game, that’s unfortunately the unfair perception.

    JE, I don’t know how bad the Parade Grounds were in the 80s. But it’s not horrible now. There are still plenty of pebbles scattered about the infield. Consequently, if you slide or dive, you will get hurt. But it’s not so bad that groundballs are impossible to field.

    More dangerous now are those guys who think it’s perfectly OK to start a game of ultimate frisbee smack dab in the middle of left field. And yes, we purposely try to hit it their way.

  4. Sarah Green says:

    That’s a much lower percentage than I’ve heard before! I’ve generally heard 75%.

  5. Back in the day I used to play in those Sunday ultimate games in Prospect Park. We used to get riled when the soccer players would encroach on us. Such is life in a crowded city.

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